Podcast

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his future, as well as a hidden, private fear?

Heroes should have at least one big open fear, preferably a universal one the majority of the audience shares, such as the fear of failure, loneliness, or commitment. Of course, they shouldn’t have so much fear they’re cowering in the corner. We want the kind of fear that gets them to actively forestall a dreaded outcome. 

No matter what happens in a scene, it will be far more compelling if we already know your hero hoped or dreaded it would happen. Perhaps your hero is forced to face the one thing he most fears (Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark gets dropped in a snake-filled tomb). Or maybe what happens to him is a metaphor for his fear (Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window is afraid of marrying Grace Kelly, so he becomes obsessed with a worst-case marital situation across the courtyard). Either way, the situation is more compelling to us because we know it’s going to tap into the character’s emotional anticipation.

Most heroes have a public common fear they express openly from the beginning. But in many stories, they also have a hidden, unique fear that’s revealed halfway through. Chief Brody in Jaws is openly worried he won’t cut it in his new beach-town job. We find out halfway through that he’s also secretly afraid of the water. Likewise, Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs is afraid that she’s in over her head at the FBI. Then we find out she’s also secretly afraid that her dirt-poor background will show through. In both cases, the key to solving the characters' public fear is to confront their hidden, private fear.

To hook an audience, get them to anticipate what might happen next. Of course, your audience will take their emotional cues from your hero, so start the first scene by asking, What is my hero anticipating? It could be something good, of course, but it’s usually a stronger choice if it’s something he dreads. Even if your audience doesn’t like your hero yet, they’ll find they need to know if the dreaded event happens. That buys you some more time to get the audience on your side.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. That his secret will be found out. That there’s something really wrong with him.

Alien

YES. Open, fear of breaking the rules. Hidden, an implied universal fear of childbirth.

An Education

YES. Public: That she won’t get into University. Private: That she’ll be as dull and unsophisticated as her mother and father.

The Babadook

YES. Open: She’s worried about her son’s fears, inability to sleep. Hidden: She fears his violent tendencies, fears that she will hurt him, perhaps even fears that she will molest him, as he has taken her husband’s place in her bed, and she shuns his hugs and physical contact in bed.

Blazing Saddles

NO.

Blue Velvet

YES. that the people who cut off the ear will never be caught. Yes, that the world is evil, that he’s evil.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Open: that he’ll be killed or captured. Private: that he’ll discover he’s not a good person

Bridesmaids

YES. Never getting married, that she’s going to lose her friend.

Casablanca

YES. Fear of attachments, fear of losing control of his bar.  Hidden: That he’ll have to face what happened in Paris.

Chinatown

YES. Open: that he won’t get paid. Hidden: that’s he’s a sleaze/leach.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  Open: Getting caught in a lie. Private: losing his soul to the mafia.

Do the Right Thing

YES. Open: He wants to keep the peace to keep his job.  Hidden: Buggin’ Out tells him to “stay black”, and he worries that he’s not doing that.

The Farewell

YES. She’s worried she’s going nowhere, she’s worried that she’s too Chinese for America and too American for China. 

The Fighter

YES. Open: That he’s a stepping stone, that his family is holding him back.  Hidden: That he can’t succeed without them.

Frozen

YES. Open: never get married, never bond with sister. Hidden: Have to hurt sister. 

The Fugitive

YES. Open: He’s afraid of crime (he has a security system and a gun) Hidden: He’s afraid that he doesn’t fit in with the rich (his wife grew up rich, he grew up with less money), and that he looks like a waiter in his tux.

Get Out

YES. Open: that he’ll be “chased off the lawn with a shotgun”, Hidden: that he killed his mother, that everybody wants to kill him. 

Groundhog Day

YES. Open: That he’ll never get a better job. Private: That he’s a terrible person.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Open: Failing to impress his dad.  Private: Afraid that he’s totally different from the rest of village.

In a Lonely Place

YES. Open: that he’s wasted his life.  Hidden: that he’ll kill somebody.

Iron Man

YES. Open, only slightly: that he won’t close this deal. Hidden: That he’s a death merchant.

Lady Bird

YES. Open fear: She won’t get into an east coast school, that she’ll always look like she’s from Sacramento.  Hidden, private fear: That she’ll lose her mom. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Open: Going back to jail.  Hidden: That he’ll be a bad dad.

Rushmore

YES. Open: He wants a girlfriend. Hidden: That he’s just a barber’s son. 

Selma

YES. Open: that he will fail to force the legislation, private: that he will get himself or his family killed, or his wife will leave him.

The Shining

YES. Open. Jack: going broke. Danny: No.  Hidden: Jack: going crazy. Danny: that something horrible will happen at the hotel.

Sideways

YES. Open: His novel won’t get published.  Hidden: His novel isn’t any good. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Open: That she’s not good enough. Hidden: That she’s a hick.

Star Wars

YES. Open: That he’ll never get to be a pilot.  Hidden: That he’ll be corrupted.

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Open: not getting work. Hidden: that he’s a hired monkey.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?

Just as your heroes begin with a false or shortsighted philosophy, they should also pursue a false or shortsighted goal for the first half of your story. This can take many forms: 

Wrong Solution to Right Solution. In 2006, the Lupus Foundation gave the TV show House an award for all it had done to spread awareness for the disease. But it was strange because, at the time, Dr. House had never correctly identified a case of lupus. Instead, House’s team would falsely identify the patient’s mysterious ailment as lupus before realizing the patient had a far more exotic disease. Lupus is a little-understood, catch-all diagnosis that can explain all sorts of symptoms that don’t normally fit together, so for House’s team, it’s a tempting but false way to think of the puzzle in front of them. Nevertheless, it gives them tests to run, and these tests unexpectedly lead them to the real diagnosis they hadn’t suspected before.

Likewise, on the show Supernatural, the demon-hunting brothers always try to exorcise ghosts by finding their graves and salting the bones, even though it’s never worked before. It’s just their fallback, false goal that gives them something to do until they uncover the real mystery.

Why use the “wrong solution” approach? It gives heroes a reason to get moving so they can learn and grow on the job. While it may seem cooler to have heroes know what to do right away, or at least withhold judgment until they have all the facts, you will often find the audience actually likes them better if you first send them charging off in the wrong direction.

Micro-Goal to Macro-Goal. This is a simpler form of false goal. Frodo sets out to merely return the ring to Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. In Star Wars, Luke goes from wanting to fix his runaway droid to wanting to blow up the Death Star. John McClane in Die Hard spends the first half of the movie just trying to call the cops before he realizes he’ll have to take on a terrorist cell single-handedly. These false goals make character motivations far more believable. If the heroes just woke up one day and decided to do a hugely daunting task, it would be hard to swallow. It’s far more compelling to watch them get sucked into greatness against their better judgment.

Total Reversal of Values. Scrooge in A Christmas Carol comes to love Christmas. Juno searches for a “cool” parent to entrust her kid to, then realizes in the end that she wants just the opposite. Dave in Breaking Away starts off trying to defeat the college kids, then realizes he really wants to join them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man wants to use his powers to make his own life better until his callousness gets his uncle killed. Jake Sully in Avatar goes from wanting to rejoin the marines to killing them en masse.

These characters grow, and we’re glad for it. Although we agreed with their original goal in the beginning, by the end, we’ve gone on the same journey they have, and we’re very happy that they’ve changed their minds. A total reversal of values is hard to pull off, but when it’s done right, it’s one of the best ways to get your audience to truly love your hero, since they’ve shared in the character’s astounding transformation.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

NO. Not really. He just wants to never change.

Alien

YES. Defend the company, follow protocol.

An Education

YES. Get into Oxford. Seems like a false goal, then turns out to be true after all.

The Babadook

YES. Convince her son that there’s no monster.

Blazing Saddles

YES. Build the railroad, mouth off.

Blue Velvet

YES. he’s there to help out with his father’s hardware store.

The Bourne Identity

YES. Well, he gets one very quickly: find out who he is.

Bridesmaids

YES. Complete her maid of honor duties without anyone knowing how broke or depressed she is. 

Casablanca

YES. stay out of politics.

Chinatown

YES. Nail Mulwray for cheating.

Donnie Brasco

YES.  to infiltrate the mob.

Do the Right Thing

YES. “Gotta get paid.”

The Farewell

YES. Tell her grandma the truth

The Fighter

YES. Win the fight against Saul Mamby.

Frozen

YES. Just ask Elsa to turn her powers off. 

The Fugitive

YES. 1st:  beginning: get home to wife without talking with other doctors, 2nd beginning: convince the cops he didn’t do it.  Later: convince Gerard

Get Out

YES. He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.    

Groundhog Day

YES. Get in and out of town quickly, get a big network job.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. Get a girlfriend, bring down a night fury, impress his dad.

In a Lonely Place

YES. write a quickie picture for some money.

Iron Man

YES. Sell the missiles to the army.

Lady Bird

YES. Win Danny. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Raise Nathan Jr. as their own. 

Rushmore

YES. Stay at Rushmore forever.

Selma

Sort of.  His plan is to use non-violence tactics to escalate the violence against himself until he moves the country to outrage, and that basically works, but reversing course at the second march implies that he’s changed course on that plan.  Again, DuVernay really makes us question that choice, even after it works.  

The Shining

YES. Jack: finish his novel, Danny: Be a normal kid

Sideways

YES. Give his friend a great last week of freedom.

The Silence of the Lambs

Not really. She’s na├»ve in her initial treatment of Lecter, but she understands the size and nature of her goal immediately.  Her eyes are on the same ultimate goal in every scene.

Star Wars

YES. Fix R2, get him back, take Obi Wan only as far as Anchorhead, etc. 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. Yes, sell a script, save his car from the repo men. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a bad piece of advice early on)?

In my book, I countered the common notion that a hero should offer a correct overall statement of philosophy on page 5. 

That said, it can be great to have a blatant or an inadvertent statement of philosophy from your hero, but only if it’s a false statement of philosophy. Then, after most of your story has passed and we’re ready for the climax, your hero can have a hallelujah moment and discover a corrected philosophy.

Perhaps the most famous false statement of philosophy would be Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca: “I stick my neck out for no one.” Only later does he reverse himself, declare that his personal problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world,” and put himself back in harm’s way for the war effort.

Another great example: Tommy Lee Jones is a smart actor, and he cleverly stole The Fugitive from Harrison Ford when he ad-libbed his own false statement of philosophy. Ford points a gun at him and says, “I didn’t kill my wife.” Jones looks at him like he’s crazy and informs him, “I don’t care” (which wasn’t in the script). This nicely sets up Jones’s big reversal at the end.

Writers talk a lot about ways to “raise the stakes” of the plot, but a false statement of philosophy raises the emotional stakes. It shows the imposing size of the internal barrier the hero must overcome to succeed.

Silence of the Lambs is an example of a character who doesn’t have a false statement of philosophy but accepts a false piece of advice. Clarice’s boss, Crawford, gives her one cardinal rule for dealing with Hannibal Lecter: “Don’t let him get into your head.” In the end, she will realize this is precisely what she needs to do.

Rulebook Casefile: Withholding the True Statement of Philosophy in Chinatown

In Step 9 of my Compelling Character series, I talked about the popular misconception that a hero should offer an overriding statement of philosophy on page 5 or so. I think it works better when the actions of a movie force a hero to arrive at a true statement of philosophy on page 90 or so. If you they offer an such a statement on page 5, it should be false, something like, “I stick my neck out for no one.”

An interesting example of this is in Chinatown. In the first scene, detective Jake Gittes has just shown a working class client named Curly pictures of his wife having an affair, then told Curly he should probably forget about it. In the finished movie, we cut away from the scene to the office outside, where the secretary waits, then Gittes and Curly emerge with Curly explaining that he can’t pay right away. Gittes says he understands, but he was just trying to make a point.

Huh? What point? Did we miss something? Yes we did. The missing chunk of dialogue from Robert Towne’s original screenplay reveals all:

Why was this cut? I think it was because the filmmakers belatedly realized that Gittes couldn’t say this yet because it’s a correct statement of philosophy. If Gittes already understands this, then he has no arc.

The whole point of the movie is for Gittes and the audience to learn this. The movie will show this to us, so they dont need to tell us as well. Like many screenwriters, Towne was giving the game away too soon by giving Gittes a correct statement of philosophy in the very first scene.

If they had caught this problem in the script phase, they could have re-written it so that Gittes offers an incorrect statement of philosophy instead, but they didn’t, so they just chopped out the middle of the scene in the editing room. Gittes doesn’t get a false statement of philosophy until much later in the movie:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES. “I respect women.  I love women.  I respect them so much that I completely stay away from them!  I have a very fulfilling life!”

Alien

YES. “Whatever happened to standard procedure”

An Education

YES. False advice: her father would say there’s no point to going to concerts. He also says that Oxford doesn’t want people who think for themselves.

The Babadook

YES. “I’m fine.”  There’s no monster.  “He doesn’t need a monitor.”  “I have moved on, I never mention him.”

Blazing Saddles

YES. When he rejects the advice of his friend not to hit the boss and says “I have to.”

Blue Velvet

YES. “I’m just real curious” “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” “No one will suspect us because no one would believe two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” He believes that he’s fundamentally different from Frank.

The Bourne Identity

YES. he keeps saying “I just want to find out who I am”, but eventually he comes to want more.  

Bridesmaids

YES. “I’m not looking for a relationship right now.” About being a bridesmaid: “I’m more than happy to do it and it’s not too much.”

Casablanca

YES. “I stick my neck out for no one.” 

Chinatown

YES. He says to the fake Mrs. Mulwray, “Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Let sleeping dogs lie?’ You’re better off not knowing.”  He will change his mind about this then come back around in the final minutes.  

Donnie Brasco

YES.  “I gotta shave my mustache off.  Regulations.”  He’s trying to play if by the book, in both jobs.

Do the Right Thing

YES. “Gotta get paid”

The Farewell

YES. I don’t understand, she doesn’t have a lot of time left, she should know, right?”

The Fighter

YES. He starts out with the right boxing philosophy, but he says about his brother, “Nobody pushes me harder.”  That’s wrong.

Frozen

YES. “What if I meet the one?...I know it all ends tomorrrow, so it has to be today.”

The Fugitive

YES. Kimble: Just barely, but when he finally realizes that they suspect him and he says “How dare you?”, that shows his naiveite.  Gerard has a much clearer one: “I don’t care.” 

Get Out

YES. She says, “They are not racist. I would have told you. I wouldn't be bringing you home to them. Think about that for just two seconds.” Chris responds, “I'm thinking. Yeah, yeah, yeah good.”

Groundhog Day

YES. Dozens: About Rita: “She’s fun, but not my kind of fun.” “People are morons.” Etc.

How to Train Your Dragon

YES. “Taking down one of those would definitely get me a girlfriend!” “No one has ever killed a night fury, I’m going to be the first.”

In a Lonely Place

YES. “She’s right, I am nobody.”

Iron Man

YES. “My old man had a philosophy: Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy.”

Lady Bird

YES. “I wish I could live through something.”  Be careful what you wish for. 

Raising Arizona

YES. Accepts bad advice from Gale: “Sometimes your career (crime) has to come before family.” 

Rushmore

YES. “What are you going to do?” “The only thing I can do: try to pull some strings with the administration.” “When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to lead an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself.”

Selma

Sort of.  He acts as if he expects Johnson to do the right thing without pressure, but he’s already planning to apply that pressure (“Selma it is”).  His philosophy is basically farsighted and rightheaded from the beginning.

The Shining

YES. Jack: “That happens to be exactly what I’m looking for.”  Danny: “I don’t want to talk about Tony anymore.”

Sideways

YES. “[Dating is] not worth it, you pay too high a price.”

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Advice given by Crawford: Don’t let him get into your head.

Star Wars

YES. “It looks like I’m going nowhere.” “I see, Sir Luke” [chuckles] “No, just Luke” (aka, “I can’t be a knight”) Later, he says, “I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now. It’s such a long way from here.” 

Sunset Boulevard

YES. “I heard you were one of the ones with talent.” “That was last year.  This year I’m trying to make a living.”